Position Battles: Linebackers

Posted Aug 3, 2015

With training camp in full swing, Akeem Ayers and Jo-Lonn Dunbar are competing for a starting spot at 'Sam' outside linebacker.

The Rams head into 2015 with many stable positions on their defense, but one spot where there could be some changes is within the linebacking corps.

Signed as an unrestricted free agent in March, Akeem Ayers appears to be the early camp leader for a starting role at outside linebacker. Should he win the competition, he’ll play alongside incumbent starters James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree.

Because he was featured mostly as a pass-rushing specialist last year with the Patriots, Ayers has some adjusting to do to get back to being a pure outside linebacker as he was for the early part of his career. With all of OTAs and a few camp practices completed, linebackers coach Frank Bush said Ayers has been doing well in that regard.

“It’s a little bit different transition to get him off the line of scrimmage and let him get some of those keys and those reads. But he’s done it,” Bush said. “It’s like riding a bike. Once he’s doing it again, he’s getting back into the groove, and we’re happy with where he is right now. We’ve just got to keep him going.”

According to Ayers, one of the shifts he has to make has to do with what he must focus on seeing during plays.

“It’s a lot more dropping, covering, making run and pass reads,” Ayers said. “So it’s just going to be me getting my eyes right where they’re supposed to be, and just getting my footwork back, and just taking reps and reps and really getting back comfortable.”

Ayers and Bush have worked together before, as Bush was Ayers’ position coach for his first two years in the league. That familiarity has aided Ayers in acclimating to his new environment.

“It helps me a lot, just being with guys who you’re comfortable with and guys who really know you and know how to coach you,” Ayers said. “And being with people you’ve had success with in the past, it helps out a lot just being a little bit familiar with the defense and terminology.”

While there are those elements of Ayers’ game that he must become re-acquainted with, Bush said the linebacker still has to rush the passer well to be successful.

“That’s a priority for us around here,” Bush said.

With Ayers’ emergence, another LB who may shift is Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Heading into his third year with St. Louis, Dunbar has started at outside linebacker with the club in the past, but has been taking snaps at the middle linebacker spot in practice.

“It’s a little different than what I’ve been used to, obviously. But it’s fun just being able to call the defense, set the defense, make your checks,” Dunbar said. “It kind of gives you that leadership and authority over what’s going on out there. So it’s fun, it’s a new challenge, and I’m enjoying it.”

“Jo-Lonn played ‘mike’ in this defense in New Orleans,” Laurinaitis said. “Whenever Jonathan Vilma would get hurt down in New Orleans, Jo-Lonn would play his position and play ‘mike.’ And the great thing about Jo-Lonn is that he’s so smart, he can play all three of the linebacker positions. And he can do it like you snap your fingers. So having that versatility as your fourth guy to come in, that means if any one of us gets hurt, Jo-Lonn can fill in and I really don’t think we’ll miss much.”

Bush also praised Dunbar’s smarts and veteran savvy, but said it’s Dunbar’s toughness that can really help him excel in the middle.

“He likes to bang,” Bush said. “He understands the game. He understands fits and all those things. But at the end of the day, he’s just a rough and tumble guy who knows how to create and make plays for himself.”

With the many talented players on the squad, Dunbar said separating yourself from the pack is all about ensuring you make the most of your skills.

“The things that you do well, you’ve just got to make sure you do them well. And the things that you don’t do well, you just try to get better on,” Dunbar said. “I think that’s where I stand in terms of my personal success or personal direction and how I’m going to get better. Do the things I do well, and try to get better each day.”